- B. N. Skardon
Elliott, William (27 April 1788–03 February 1863), planter, writer, and sportsman, was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, the son of William Elliott, a planter, and Phoebe Waight. Elliott was educated in the schools at Beaufort and at Beaufort College. He entered the sophomore class at Harvard in 1806. He withdrew from Harvard in 1808 because of ill health; he was later awarded a B.A. in 1810 and an A.M. in 1815 from the school. After leaving Harvard, he returned to Beaufort and devoted himself to the management of the family rice and cotton plantations. In 1817 Elliott married Ann Hutchinson Smith; they had nine children.
As a planter with considerable family prestige, Elliott occupied a position of civic leadership. He was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1814 and for the next eighteen years served as a representative and senator from the Beaufort District. By 1826 Elliott was well established as one of the prominent political figures in the Low Country of South Carolina. During the ferment over nullification and secession (1828–1832), Elliott began to show his impatience with the political course that South Carolina seemed destined to follow. He stood with the Unionists against nullification and secession. He resigned from the state senate in 1832 rather than accede to a demand from his constituents that he vote for nullification of the federal tariff laws that would be introduced in the upcoming legislative session. In September 1832 Elliott issued a pamphlet titled Address to the People of St. Helena Parish, in which he explained the folly of nullification and the falsity of the hopes held by those advocating nullification. More important is Elliott’s impassioned warning that nullification of federal laws would lead to revolution and civil war.
After withdrawing from politics, Elliott devoted himself primarily to planting, writing, and travel. During the summer months he joined the migration of planter families to more healthful climates to escape “the fever” prevalent in the swampy coastal regions and to find cures for his numerous ailments, none of which seemed to restrict or impair his activities (he has been referred to as a “genteel hypochondriac”). He was a frequent visitor to Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa, New York. He also renewed old friendships in Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston.
Elliott was the third of his name to become a planter in the Beaufort area. For fifty years he produced large crops of sea-island cotton and rice. He was widely respected for his knowledge of agriculture and for his zealous efforts to promote agricultural education in South Carolina. His planter heritage was forever tied to sea-island cotton through his father, who produced the first successful crop in South Carolina in 1790. Elliott’s articles published in the Southern Agriculturist attest to an expert knowledge of and familiarity with the planting, cultivation, and production of sea-island cotton. The peculiar affinities of sea-island cotton—soil, climate, and cultivation—were carefully studied by Elliott. He determined that seed selection was a dominant factor in the quality of the cotton produced. He carefully articulated the process by which the better seeds were selected. Elliott sought not only to improve agriculture but also to stimulate other planters to recognize and to understand the economics that governed their labors.
Being one of the largest planters of the antebellum era in South Carolina, Elliott owned a large number of slaves for the production of his crops. Like most southern planters, he defended slavery as an institution on which southern agriculture was molded and totally dependent.
Although Elliott achieved regional prominence as an agriculturist and as a forthright political nonconformist, he is best remembered as a writer of sketches of hunting and fishing experiences, especially his graphic accounts of harpooning from a small boat the monstrous devilfish. Many of these sketches were published in Charleston, South Carolina, newspapers and in the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine. They were collected and published as Carolina Sports by Land and Water, Including Incidents of Devil Fishing, Etc. (1846). The charm of these tales lies in the animation and gusto with which Elliott communicates his experiences. The book has been published in seven separate editions and one reprint edition. The 1859 edition contains six vivid illustrations that capture the imagination of the reader. The book was also published in London in 1867 with an introduction by James Spence, a distinguished publicist and member of Parliament.
Approximately one-half of Carolina Sports is devoted to tales of tracking the devilfish. Elliott’s description of the devilfish gives some idea of the precarious nature of the sport: “Imagine, then, a monster, measuring from sixteen to twenty feet across the back, full three feet in depth, having powerful yet flexible flaps or wings, with which he drives himself furiously through the water, or vaults high into the air: his feelers (commonly called horns) projecting several feet beyond his mouth … and you have an idea, an imperfect one, of this curious fish” (p. 6). Theodore Roosevelt, who became fascinated with harpooning the devilfish in later years, paid tribute to Elliott’s book: “Killing devil-fish with the harpoon and lance had always appealed to me as a fascinating sport, since as a boy I had read Elliott’s account of it in his ‘Field Sports of South Carolina’ ” (The Works of Theodore Roosevelt, vol. 4, p. 315).
In 1850 Elliott privately printed Fiesco: A Tragedy, a five-act drama in blank verse based on the sixteenth-century conspiracy of John Lewis de Fiesco, a Genoese nobleman, against the Dorias, the ruling family of Genoa. He did not sign his name to the work but published it as “by an American.” Elliott described his feelings about the play to his wife: “I am also printing my tragedy—for private presents to my literary friends—it is without a name and is a dead secret. It has talent I know, but does not become me! Therefore, it comes forth as an illegitimate!”
Elliott was one of the most gifted planters of the South. His life spanned the antebellum period of the South from beginning to end, and he adhered closely to the conventions and traditions of the planter caste, which he held inviolate. He was an early advocate of manufacturing as a means of bolstering the economy of the South, and he pointed out the ruinous effect of the one-crop system of the cotton plantations.
As a writer of the antebellum era, Elliott is not a major figure. His slight literary reputation rests on his collection of sketches on rural sports. But he wrote with a vigorous style that imparted spirit and enthusiasm to his narratives. Elliott was a reluctant writer; he wrote in his leisure and only when occasions or events prompted him to express himself. He believed, as apparently most planters did, that writing for monetary gain or for publication did not become the planter caste. When Elliott did write, he used a pen name for anonymity. He signed his sporting sketches “Venator” and “Piscator”; some of his antisecession pamphlets were signed “Agricola.” As a noble example of a dead tradition, Elliott is remembered as a writer who helped give a distinctive flavor to the literature of the South. He died in Charleston, South Carolina.
The Elliott-Gonzales Papers, consisting of approximately 4,000 items covering the period 1698 to 1898, are located in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Elliott’s collected letters are published in Beverly Scafidel, ed., The Letters of William Elliott (microfilm, 1978). For a list of Elliott’s published addresses and pamphlets, see Robert Bain et al., eds., Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary (1979). For a comprehensive study of Elliott see Lewis Pinckney Jones, “Carolinas and Cubans: The Elliotts and the Gonzaleses, Their Work and Their Writings” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1952). Louis D. Rubin, Jr., William Elliott Shoots a Bear (1975), discusses Elliott’s literary merits, flaws, and weaknesses, and probes why this gifted sportsman and writer wrote only sketches on rural sports. An obituary is in the Charleston Courier, 4 Feb. 1863.